GM compensation fund approves 19 death claims, beyond 13 confirmed by automaker

David Shepardson and Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

The independent compensation fund overseeing claims from the General Motors Co. ignition switch recall approved applications for 19 deaths in its first six weeks — significantly more than the 13 deaths the Detroit automaker has acknowledged.

The number of deaths covered by the fund is almost certain to go up as it continues to review more than 100 additional claims for deaths, said Camille S. Biros, deputy administrator of the fund. Lawyers believe the final number will go up dramatically. The fund is accepting applications for compensation through Dec. 31.

Of the dozen injury claims approved so far, four are for very serious injuries and eight are for less serious injuries. Serious claims include loss of limbs, permanent brain damage or serious burns. Lesser injuries include those requiring hospitalization or outpatient treatment within 48 hours.

Independent compensation expert Kenneth Feinberg said the fund has received 445 claims, including 125 death claims. They stem from GM’s delayed recall of 2.6 million Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other cars with faulty ignition switches that can accidentally turn off the engine and disable power steering, power brakes and air bags. Some at the automaker knew of problems for more than a decade before the cars were recalled.

The fund is in the process of notifying this week the 31 claimants who are eligible; it expects to offer compensation packages in the coming two weeks, Biros said. If victims accept compensation, they give up their right to sue GM.

She said some of the 445 claims are ineligible — they are for cars not covered by the program, for example — but she didn’t have exact figures.

GM, which paid a record-setting $35 million federal fine for delaying its recall of the 2.6 million cars, has to date said it believes 13 deaths and 54 crashes are related to the problem.

GM spokesman Dave Roman said the company accepts Feinberg’s determination. Under the terms of the fund, GM has the right to raise questions about claims, but once Feinberg determines they are eligible, he has sole discretion to decide how much they should receive. GM has exercised its right to be heard on some victim compensation requests, Biros said.

Roman said, “When we announced the compensation program, we said the number of eligible individuals may not be limited to 13 deaths and that Ken Feinberg would determine the final number. We have previously said that Ken Feinberg and his team will independently determine the final number of eligible individuals, so we accept their determinations for the compensation program. What is most important is that we are doing the right thing for those who lost loved ones and for those who suffered physical injury.”

‘Decades-long fraud’

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, said Feinberg’s initial findings confirm “my repeated warnings that the number of deaths caused by GM’s concealed ignition defects is likely to be far higher than the 13 that the company acknowledged.”

Lawyers for people filing claims say they think the number of approved claims will end up much much higher, but none contacted said Feinberg’s office had notified them of any approvals.

Bob Hilliard, a Texas lawyer representing 90 families of people who were killed and another 1,300 who were injured, said “it is clear the death toll is and will be much higher than GM publicly declared. The decades-long fraud has prevented any meaningful way to determine how many lives GM is responsible for ending.”

Attorney Jere Beasley, founder of the Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles, P.C. law firm, said his firm submitted 18 claims, including four deaths, two significant injuries and 12 less serious injuries, but hasn’t heard from Feinberg’s office. “We’ll be shocked if we don’t get 100 percent acceptance based on what we know about the cases,” Beasley said Monday.

Georgia attorney Lance Cooper said Monday his firm also has not heard back from the fund administrator about two dozen claims that were submitted, including 12 death claims and three serious injuries. “We have known all along that the death toll from these defective switches would be much higher than GM’s original number,” Cooper said.

In order to protect confidentiality, the fund is not disclosing how many of the approved claims are for deceased drivers, occupants or people killed in other vehicles.

The fund will pay at least $1 million for each death claim, along with $300,000 payments to surviving spouses and children for pain and suffering. In addition, it will calculate the economic value of the life lost.

GM’s tally doesn’t include backseat passengers killed in the cars because even if front air bags had inflated, those passengers wouldn’t have been protected. Under Feinberg’s rules, if the crash was linked to the ignition switch defect they qualify.

“We’re using a much more liberal standard to make these determinations,” Biros said, explaining they are reviewing circumstantial evidence such as police reports, black box data, photographs, and warranty and repair records.

The fund is also open to pedestrians and those in other vehicles involved in crashes that might have been caused by loss of power steering and power brakes.

‘Tricky’ to prove

Feinberg, who oversaw compensation funds related to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the Boston Marathon bombing, was hired by GM in March to establish the fund.

The Washington lawyer has acknowledged it will be “tricky” in some instances to prove crashes were linked to the defect. Some happened nearly a decade ago and the cars are long gone. The fund especially will want to see photographs of accident scenes and documentation of the crash.

He is looking at circumstantial evidence that the ignition switch might have been the cause: police reports, “black box” data showing the key was turned off at the time of the crash, and warranty and maintenance reports showing problems with stalling.

A team of about two dozen economists and administrative personnel is reviewing claims.

The fund isn’t planning to reduce awards because of what’s known as “contributory negligence” — because a driver was drunk, texting, speeding or not wearing a seat belt.

Some lawyers for people killed or injured in the crashes said they plan to file hundreds of claims related to the defect.

GM has set aside $400 million to pay claims but said the total could hit $600 million. GM and Feinberg have repeatedly stressed that there is no cap on total claims.

dshepardson@detroitnews.com